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Author, Martin Bell

Martin Bell

About Martin Bell

An Interview with Martin Bell

More About Martin Bell

Martin Bell was awarded an OBE in 1992. He was voted Royal Television Society Reporter of the Year in 1977 and again in 1993 for his work in Bosnia, and has received several honorary degrees. His book In Harm's Way was published in Penguin in 1996.

Martin Bell, anti-sleaze campaigner and self-styled accidental MP looks back on four years of New Labour government.

Of the 260 new MPs elected in 1997, I was the one with the least idea of what to expect. A place in Parliament had never been on my wish list. Between being a candidate and being an MP had taken just 24 days. I did it on a whim and because the cause was compelling. The regrets of my life, almost without exception, have been about the road not taken, or the challenge refused.

Like most MPs I can claim, mistakenly, for all I know, some modest success in a campaign or two. I was especially pleased, following two adjournment debates, that the Government agreed to a gratuity for the few thousand surviving Far East prisoners of war. That was the Prime Minister's personal decision. It was the first time in more than half a century that their service and sacrifice had been recognised. Sometimes good things happen, even in politics.

But one campaign of mine that never caught on was the campaign for shorter speeches in Parliament. Because MPs are fated to spend so much time listening to each other's orations, they seem obliged to inflict as much tedium as they endure. I would commonly wait for five hours to speak for five minutes, and then wonder, was it worth it?

Possibly not, when the government's majority was so large, its back-benchers were so compliant, and the important decisions were taken elsewhere, especially in Downing Street. At least I had the luxury of voting according to the merits of the arguments I heard. So I was persuaded by Paul Flynn MP of the merits of legalising cannabis for medical purposes.

But rebellions were rare and few free spirits dared to defy the whips. I had thought I was joining the free parliament of a free people. It came to seem increasingly like a rubber stamp assembly. Party discipline is necessary up to a point, but it is not the be-all and end-all of a live democracy.

Looking back on those four years, I do not believe that we have been in general badly governed. This government has been more confident than the last; but it was helped, of course, by having a steam-roller majority. Both governments were broadly successful (after the ERM fiasco) in running the economy. Both shared in one high profile disaster, the Dome. Neither apologised for it.

The area that has caused me greatest concern is the issue of public trust. It was the issue on which I was elected in Tatton, and which produced the Labour landslide nationwide. Public trust has not been restored. It may even have been eroded still further. I am not sure that this Parliament is held in higher esteem than the last one. There remains a widespread assumption that politicians are in it for what they can get out of it.

The landmark event was the Bernie Ecclestone affair in November 1997. The government appeared to adjust its policy on tobacco advertising to accommodate the interests of a £1 million contributor. It should have been a wake-up call, but Downing Street's alarm bells were somehow switched off. The scandals followed one after the other, involving Peter Mandelson, Geoffrey Robinson, Keith Vaz and others. Wealth and influence bought special access, life peerages and fast-tracked passports. The Lord Chancellor could see nothing wrong in seeking party contributions from senior members of the legal profession whose careers he was in a position to advance. The Prime Minster kept in his government a minister who had refused to answer fully the questions of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. And this was the brave new world of New Labour?

Last year I wrote an account of my parliamentary adventure, An Accidental MP, which Penguin were kind enough to publish. It was generally well received and well reviewed, except of course by the MP whom I unseated, and by his wife. In it I concluded that the 'sleaze factor' in the Parliament of 1997 was of a different order to that of its predecessor. There was no cash in brown envelopes; no pattern of MPs exploiting their office to enrich themselves; nothing as blatant as what had gone before.

I have had to rewrite that chapter. I have since concluded that this lot is in some ways as bad as the last lot. The impropriety is of a different order. But it appears to be institutional. It relates to party funding, to abuse of the honours system and to misconduct by MPs who remain in their ministerial positions.

If we do not do better next time, we shall not be forgiven.

Martin Bell

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